Friday, May 19, 2017

252. Dealing with the dead in Naples

Having never been down into any catacombs before and not being very good underground in damp spooky confines, I swallowed a bravery pill and set off to visit the two most important in Naples - each dedicated to a different  patron saint ( there are actually 52 patron saints of Naples ... !!! ) namely Saint Gaudiosus ( San Gaudioso ) and St. Januarius ( San Gennaro ). The only way to visit the catacombs is by guided tour - our first guide was Antoni and then at the second site was Flora - both very dedicated and knowledgable young students.

These catacombs in Naples are different from their counterparts in Rome in that they have more spacious passageways along two levels. The lower level is the oldest, going back to the 3rd-4th century and may actually be the site of an earlier pre-Christian cemetery later ceded to the new religious sect.


The first catacomb was that of San Gennaro found under the Basilica dell'Incoronata Madre del Buonconsiglio i ... this is the largest Christian catacomb complex in southern Italy. The first structure was probably the result of the fusion of two ancient burial sites, one from the 2nd century CE that contained the remains of Saint Agrippinus of Naples, the first patron saint of Naples, and the site from the 4th century CE that contained the remains of St. Januarius, the chief patron saint of the city.




There were different types of burial: the simplest type were dug in the ground or along the walls and peripheral corridors of the ambulatory - these graves were quite deep and could accommodate  a number of bodies laid on top of each other. The tombs of the most wealthy, the arcosolia, were arched in shape and usually contained only one body. Both types of graves were sealed over with clay tiles and some had religious frescoes telling the tale of the deceased. 





The Catacombs of San Gennaro cover approximately 60,278 sq ft within tuff ( heavy volcanic rock ) excavations on the Capodimonte Hill, and host around 3,000 burial recesses, along with 500 sarcophagi dug into wall niches.




Of course our guides had many tales about the operations and the goings on down below in the Catacombs - but I wont go into any of that for fear of giving you nightmares ...

























... our guide Antoni ...




The San Gaudioso Catacomb - is accessible via the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità and ischaracterized by walls sepulchres bearing skulls of the deceased. Parts of the same walls open into cubicula, composed of precious 5th-6th Century paintings and mosaics that decorate further burial niches and depict such Christian symbols as lambs, peacocks and grapes. This Catacomb was quite creepy in that the level of humidity was very high and the atmosphere clammy - just like the stories about the Dominican Order of brothers and nuns that ran the business ...



The Dominicans charged the relatives of the dead large amounts of money to be buried in style - the closer your grave was to that of the saint, the more you paid of course ... by carrying on this fundraising enterprise they were eventually able to built rather grand basilicas over the top of the catacombs - all to the glory of the saints buried below stairs of course.






... and this is the entrance to the city of the dead below ...


... Flora assured us this was just an effigy ...

... part of a fresco from the 5th century ...





The Dominicans believed that the "soul" dwelt in the human head ( we of course know that it is in the foot ... ) - and the wealthy dead had a better chance than the poor of getting into heaven - because they paid more money for the joy of it - and so their heads were cut off from the body and placed in in niches along the walls with frescoes painted underneath depicting their life - the rest of the body ended up in the graves ...







Until the eleventh century the catacombs were the main burial site of Neapolitans - then between the 13th and 18th century, they were the victim of severe looting. I must say that I was rather pleased to escape the atmosphere in this last Catacomb and emerge out into the dry heat of a busy Naples street ...
 Restoration of the catacombs has been a relatively modern event and made possible only after the transfer of the skeletal remains to other cemeteries. And then I discovered where all those skulls were taken to ... 

And after visiting the two catacomb sites, it only seemed natural to continue my journey with the dead and make my way to The Fontanelle. This is an ossuary house with a vast collection of skeletal remains - found in a cave in the hillside in the Sanità section of the city – a not-so-salubrious part of town. It is more than simply interesting, bizarre and unusual – I would call it quite unique - in a macabre fashion.


The area, itself, was well to the north, beyond the walls of the ancient Greek and Roman city, and Greek burial chambers have been found in the vicinity. The area, thus, is no stranger to rituals of death, but even though the Greeks carved the original huge cavern out of the hillside, they could not have imagined the Fontanelle.



By the time the Spanish moved into the city in the early 1500s, there was already concern over exactly where to locate cemeteries, and moves had been taken to locate graves outside of the city walls. This did not sit well with many Neapolitans, who insisted on being interred in their local churches, the ones where they had worshipped all their lives. To make space in the churches for the newly interred, undertakers started removing earlier "residents" outside the city to the cave that would one day be the Fontanelle cemetery. The remains were interred shallowly and then joined in 1656 by thousands upon thousands of anonymous corpses, victims of the great plague of that year.

 

At that point, sometime in the late 1600s, according to Andrea de Jorio, a scholar from the 19th century, great floods washed open the graves and flooded the remains out and into the streets, presenting the grisly spectacle of roads awash with anonymous bones and corpses. The remains were eventually gathered and returned to the cave, at which point the cave became the unofficial final resting place for the indigent of the city in the succeeding years, a vast paupers' cemetery, about 5,000 square meters in area. It was codified officially as such in the early 1800s under the French rule of Naples. The last great "deposit" of the indigent dead seems to have been in the wake of the cholera epidemic of 1837.



Then, in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the chaotically buried skeletal remains disinterred and cataloged. They then remained on the surface, stored in makeshift crypts, in boxes and on wooden racks. From that moment, a spontaneous cult of affection for, and devotion to, the remains of these unnamed dead developed in Naples.

Defenders of the cult pointed out that they were paying respect to those who had had none in life, who had been too poor even to have a proper burial. Devotees paid visits to the skulls, cleaned them--"adopted" them in a way, even giving the skulls back their "living" names ( revealed to their caretakers in dreams ). An entire cult sprang up, devoted to caring for the skulls, talking to them, asking for favors, bringing them flowers, etc. and a small church, Maria Santissima del Carmine, was built at the entrance.

 



 

Folklore sprang up, stories connected with the skulls, stories about their original "owners" and how they interacted with the living. The "Captain's Skull" is one such tale: a poor young girl adopted a skull and knew ( from a dream ) that he had been a Spanish captain. She talked to him, prayed to him, and asked that she might find a husband. She did. On the wedding day in church, everyone noticed a stranger in anachronistic military garb at the back of the church. He smiled at the young bride, at which point the jealous bridegroom approached the captain and asked him, "Who are you? Who invited you?!" "Your bride did, at the cemetery," said the Captain. The husband challenged the stranger to prove that he was, indeed, who he claimed to be, at which point the Captain opened his tunic to reveal a skeleton beneath. The young husband promptly died of shock.

 



 
The cult of devotion to the skulls of the Fontanelle cemetery lasted into the mid-20th century. In 1969, Cardinal Ursi of Naples decided that such devotion had degenerated into paganism and ordered the cemetery to be closed. 

An intensive project of restoration under the auspices of  the Department for Geological and Subterranean Safety of the city of Naples was started in the year 2000. The restorers were faced with a very large and potentially very unsafe cavern littered with an unbelievable jumble of scattered skeletal remains. In four years' time, the restorers shored up and embedded miles of steel rods to reinforce those sections of the tufaceous cavern surfaces that needed it; they also collected, sorted, re-catalogued, cleaned and restored to their original places most of the tens of thousands of skeletal remains, primarily the skulls, which had given rise to the cult of the Fontanelle in the first place.

 ... mmmm ... what can I say ... !!! ...




Interestingly, the cavern was not just a repository for remains from well-known disasters--say, the devastations of the 1600s ... eruptions of Vesuvius, pestilence, famine, etc.; the cavern also contains many remains that simply turned up over the centuries in the course of various dramatic episodes of one kind or another - the collapse of a building, the discovery of remains in the course of often massive urban renewal projects. Indeed, one shrine has the dedication "In thanks of grace received, Sept. 6, 1943." There is no name, just a thank-you for having survived a devastating Allied air-raid against Naples on that day. 

The period of greatest "cult devotion" at the Fontanelle cemetery was the 1950s, perhaps understandable in light of the recent devastations of WWII. As strange as it sounds, the premises were a favorite trysting place of young lovers, and -- this perhaps not so strange -- of those dedicated to Black Magic. Also, Monday was one of the two special days of the week considered most propitious to be active at the Fontanelle since that day was, according to lore, the day favored by Hecate, the Greek goddess of the underworld, magic, and the moon. Friday was the other special day since the lottery numbers were drawn on Saturday; it never hurts to get in a last-minute pitch to beseech a lucky number in a dream that night from your adopted spirit. I visited today - Thursday - but still bought a lottery ticket - just in case... !!! ...

 ... some generous patron has left a bus ticket and a cigarette ...

... others have left monetary donations ...
presumably for the deceased to buy their own bus ticket and ciggies ...

 




Most impressive are the restored teche (plural of teca) small box-like shrines arrayed around the cavern. Each one contains at least one skull (sometimes more), representing the departed spirit of the original owner adopted by one of the many devotees of the cult. The procedure was to adopt a skull and, in exchange for small favors, pray for the spirit of the deceased to be released from purgatory. In the process of cleaning the skulls, the restoration team found a number of votive slips of paper stuffed into the eye-sockets of skulls; the notes contain wishes of the devotee.  (This is quite common in other religious contexts in Naples; even Christmas trees are often so decorated). Also, the small shrines often have the name written on them of the woman who had taken charge of that particular skull.

 And standing in the middle of all this chaos, 
is the lone but  illuminated figure of the Blessed Virgin ... 


... I'll let the Dominican monk 
and baby Jesus have the last say ...

 ... and that's been my day dealing with the dead in Napoli - 
things will get a bit more jolly tomorrow when I go hunting some fine art ...